August 24, 2008

Education as a Model for Atheist Activism

All griping aside, the first day of classes in college is fun. Maybe my perspective is skewed now that I am the one teaching and not the student whose summer vacation just ended. Still, many of the students seem eager as they listen intently and evaluate what we will be like as teachers, whether they will enjoy the content of our course, and make initial judgments about how difficult the material might be. I remember the mixture of excitement and trepidation well from my years as a student. Seeing it now in my class is a vivid reminder that learning can be fun for everyone involved in the process.

The students seem so open and receptive on the first day of class. I can challenge preconceived notions, dismiss widely held beliefs as myths that will be debunked during the semester, and even pose questions to initiate debate and discussion. I see several smiles and nods. The students are engaged and optimistic.

And yet, I realize even now that I will lose some students over the course of the semester. Some will decide the class is too difficult and drop. Others will earn poor enough grades that they give up. And others will simply tire of the routine, becoming too busy with their other obligations to maintain focus and enthusiasm.

My goal, and it is not always an easy one to reach, is to teach to the students who remain interested, engaged with the material, and hope to acquire knowledge or skills. In some classes, they will be the minority. But it is them with who I must connect. Their enthusiasm connects with mine and provides me the energy I need to remain passionate about what I am doing.

I do not simply give up on the students whose interest wanes, but I recognize that I will not be able to stimulate everyone equally. By providing the interested students with the best experience I can, my enthusiasm will infect some of the others.

Perhaps there is a lesson in here somewhere with regard to atheist activism. Might stimulating thought be accomplished more effectively through means other than firing barrages of criticism at believers? I recognize that such criticism is important to dispel the erroneous notion that religious belief is off limits to critique. At the same time, it is probably not particularly conducive to genuine learning on the part of believers. Even a cursory review of some of the stories in the news lately indicate that learning is vital:
An atheist activism which focuses only on criticizing religious belief is doomed to fail. While necessary at least to some degree, it is not sufficient. Effective education requires us to bridge the gap between nonbeliever and believer.

H/Ts to Unscrewing the Inscrutable and Oz Atheist's Weblog

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